A documentary about the women who sell themselves on India’s street
Directed by Mystelle Brabbée
In her first feature-length documentary film, Highway Courtesans, Mystelle Brabbée transports you to a small town in Central India where the eldest daughter in each family goes into “the Profession” to support her parents, brothers and sisters.
This centuries-old tradition of prostitution, which began with placement of prettier-than-average village girls as courtesans in India’s palaces, is often given gloss and glamorization in Bollywood features. While traveling in India, Brabbée became fascinated by these women who wait by the side of the road for their customers—mostly truckers with regular routes through the area—to roll into town and stop for some entertainment.
“I was familiar and quite comfortable with Indian culture and felt close to it because I grew up around it. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found in the Bachara community, where you see so many young women waiting by the roadside for their customers: who stop, spend a few hours and some rupees and then drive off. I saw these women, and I knew I had to find out more about their lives, about their stories,” says Brabbée.
“Being in ‘the Profession’ clearly determines their prospects in life and their lifestyle. It’s very difficult for them to find a way out of it. The Profession doesn’t have quite the same degree of social stigma it has in Western cultures—and in the United States in particular—but most of these women never marry, although some do have children that are very loved and cared for by their families.”
MERIN: Prostitution is such a sensitive subject, and, even though following the tradition might be voluntary, these women are being exploited. How did you get them to agree to make the film?
BRABBÉE: It was difficult to find them. I had to find the right town to work in. I had to move from village to village for a while until I found the right one.
At first, the women thought it would be fun to be in a film. They imagined, I guess, a sort of Bollywood experience, and when I turned on the camera, they began ‘acting’ and dancing the way actors in Bollywood films do. It was quite difficult to explain to them that the movie was about them, about their lives. That took a while—for them to just be themselves in front of the camera, and to speak openly. They’re very honest, but opening up to reveal your dreams and disappointments, that’s a little different.
With some it was easier than others. I kept going back to India to find out more and cover more. I shot the film from 1990 though 2004. Spending so much time with them made it easier for them to relax and be themselves in front of the camera. I even let them use a camera while I wasn’t there, just to get continuity.
Were they different when you were away?
Not that much. They don’t feel they have much to hide. Their families appreciate what they’re doing, and they have very strong support systems. But that’s sometimes a trap because—even if they have a chance to leave or get married and have a different kind of life—they don’t want to betray their families by going. There is a lot of love and loyalty. Many support their brothers, too, because—to their way of thinking—being in the Profession is easier than the kind of labor their brothers would have to do to earn even a small fraction of the money they earn from their clients. They express this continually: that they love their families, and what they’re doing doesn’t disturb them that much.
How did you decide which of the women’s stories to tell?
That became clear to me as I got to know the women. Guddi was such a strong character from the time I met her, and she really stands out from the others because she, at age 21, decided she was quitting the Profession—which made her father and brothers furious. Her story needed telling. Ironically, even after having escaped the Profession and becoming a teacher, she’s one of the least happy of the women I met and filmed. Her younger sister, Shana, who followed Guddi into the Profession, stayed in it—and had a child with one of her regular customers. And she’s content with her life.
Did you get attached to the women? Did you feel you had to help them?
Yes, I think we became friends, although I don’t think they really understand what my life is like—apart from filming them. I think they had some expectations that I could provide some things they needed, but I felt obliged to stay outside their lives and be an observer. As a filmmaker, that’s my role.
Still nine years is …
A long time. True. I do think about them, but there came a time for me to finish the film and get it seen and move on.
Have they seen it?
Not yet. I’m not sure what they’ll think of it when they do.
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